A father's love for his daughter and Martha Lou's Kitchen
By D.R.E. James
I’m heartbroken but I sleep well knowing I supported, and told everyone with an appetite to patronize, Martha Lou’s. I licked my fingers, scraped my plate, and gave it its flowers while it was here.
I don’t know about you, but I feel extremely awkward taking selfies. However, on a sticky, hot summer day in 2017, I had no choice. You see, I had to make sure my daughter, Frankie, understood that her father loved her so much that he’d taken her to lunch atMartha Lou’s Kitchen.
She paused from eating her freezer pop long enough for both of us to squeeze in the frame with the famous mural of restaurant namesake Martha Lou Gadsden smiling in the background. This was the only way I could properly commemorate this event.
You couldn’t — and still can’t — convince me that eating fried chicken and candied yams in that itty, bitty pink building wasn’t just as life-changing a culinary experience as brunching on steak tartar and Moule Frites atBalthazar.
Whether it was the buddingNoMo(North of Morrison) neighborhood of Charleston orSoHoin New York City, both places were iconic. That’s why I made sure we wore matching pink and white stripes.
I know you’re probably wondering why a father would put on a button-up shirt and slacks and make his daughter wear a dress just to get greasy at a no-frills soul food joint, but I had such an intense reverence for Martha Lou's.
A year later, when I wrote acover storyabout her for the Charleston Chronicle, I made damn sure that everybody knew she deserved to be on the pantheon of the South’s culinary Grand Dames right next to Leah Chase and Edna Lewis.
I don’t want this to read like a eulogy. Instead, it's a wake-up call.
Which is why when my friend Jack sent me a text about the restaurant closing, I was devastated. I knew very well that gentrification was tightening its grip on the peninsula, squeezing the soul — and, by soul, I mean Blackness — out of Charleston.
A decade from now Mrs. Martha Lou Gadsden will have been on this Earth for a century, so maybe it’s selfish of us to want this forever. Nothing, absolutely nothing, lasts forever.
I’ll never forget the last phone conversation we had in December 2018. We talked about how she started off as a barmaid at the Ladson House, cooking ham hocks, and making sandwiches at Woolworth's during Jim Crow, and her four daughters, especially, Debra, whom I hounded for weeks to get Martha Lou’s phone number for the interview.
The last thing we talked about were the high-rises and cranes in the sky surrounding her little restaurant. In that moment, we both realized the inevitable would happen. The day would come that 37 years of history would be demolished and developed into condos with rooftop cabanas, saunas and 24-hour security for hipsters and techies who drive Teslas and sip macchiattos made with organic cashew milk.
I’m heartbroken but I sleep well knowing I supported, and told everyone with an appetite to patronize, Martha Lou’s. I licked my fingers, scraped my plate, and gave it its flowers while it was here. I don’t want this to read like a eulogy. Instead, it's a wake-up call.
YES! The Royale With Cheese atZero Georgeis worth the hype. YES! What Chef Shamil does with calamari atDelaney Oyster Houseis godly. But I urge you to please go see Miss Sandra atDave’s Carry Out,Felicity and her sister, Safiya, atHannibal’s Kitchen,and Brooks atEastside Soul Food.
These are the last three black-owned restaurants in Downtown Charleston. Get the red rice, the fried shrimp and okra soup but, whatever you do, don’t take these gems for granted. Because the powers that be in Charleston have made it abundantly clear they value capitalism over culture.